Elizabeth Anscombe | Higher education | The Guardian


She gives the famous illustration of the contents of a basket which a shopper fills according to a list, and which a detective compiles a list of. If the shopper finds any discrepancy between his list and what is actually in the basket, he rectifies this not by altering the list (practical thought) but by altering what’s in the basket (the action performed). If the detective wants to rectify discrepancies between his list (observational thought) and what’s in the basket (the other’s action observed), then he can indeed do so merely by altering the list. But our actions are intentional only under a description, said Anscombe, so that under one description (“I wanted to help”) an action may be intentional, under others (“I interfered”, “I stopped play”) unintentional.https://c2b229b81d012e82bb22a0e0ee2315fe.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-39/html/container.html?n=0

Anscombe thought that modern philosophy had also misunderstood ethics. In her seminal paper Modern Moral Philosophy (1958), she argued that notions like “moral obligation”, “moral duty”, “morally right”, and “morally wrong”, are now vacuous hangovers from the Judaeo-Christian idea of a law-giving God. Anscombe, of course, firmly believed in God herself, but she was examining the way language was actually used, and ethics done. She argued that “ought” has become “a word of mere mesmeric force”, since it no longer has the corollary “because we are commanded by God”.

Philosophers, however, have tried to find content in the deracinated ethical concepts, and failing to, have been induced to supply “an alternative (very fishy) content”, such as that the right action is the one that produces the best possible consequences. However purportedly different, in fact, all contemporary moral philosophies lead to this sort of “consequentialism” (it was Anscombe who coined that now-indispensable term), which blithely countenances the execution of an innocent person as a potentially right action. Anscombe famously asserted of someone who thought in this way, “I do not want to argue with him: he shows a corrupt mind.” She urged the abandonment of “the law conception of ethics” and a return to the avowedly secular Aristotelian concepts of practical reasoning and virtue. And she insisted that it was no longer possible to do moral philosophy without doing philosophy of mind, thoroughly investigating concepts such as “action”, “intention”, and “pleasure” in their non-moral sense.

Two years earlier, in 1956, she had demonstrated in a very practical way her opposition to consequentialism. When it was proposed that Oxford should give President Truman an honorary degree, she and two others opposed this because of his responsibility for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although overruled, they forced a vote, instead of the customary automatic rubber-stamping of the proposal. “For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder,” declared Anscombe’s pamphlet, Mr Truman’s Degree. It sarcastically condoled with the Censor of St Catherine’s for having to make a speech “which should pretend to show that a couple of massacres to a man’s credit are not exactly a reason for not showing him honour”.

Anscombe was never afraid to voice unpopular views, scandalising liberal colleagues such as Bernard Williams with her paper against contraception (later published in revised form by the Catholic Truth Society) and condemnation of homosexuality.

Outspoken, often rude, she was sometimes dubbed “Dragon Lady”. For a time she sported a monocle, and had a trick of raising her eyebrows and letting it fall on her ample bosom, which somehow made her yet more daunting. But, while giving short shrift to pretension and pomposity, she took endless pains with those students she considered serious. Her exhilarating tutorials went on for hours, leaving everyone exhausted; students could drop into her house at any time to discuss philosophy among the dirty nappies. Married to Peter Geach, a fellow-philosopher and Catholic, she was always called “Miss Anscombe”, which caused some consternation at the Radcliffe Infirmary whenever she turned up to give birth (she had seven children).

Perhaps Anscombe’s best work was done in the 50s, but her three-volume Collected Philosophical Papers (1981) contain trenchant papers on epistemology, metaphysics, history of philosophy, and philosophy of religion. Causality and Determination, her inaugural lecture on becoming professor of Cambridge in 1970, presented an extraordinarily original and controversial view of causation.

An affectionate tribute on her retirement in 1986 called her “a modern Daniel in the lions’ den”, but, although doggedly Catholic, Anscombe could also be radical and was never straitlaced. She was notorious for a forthright foulmouthedness which was only enhanced by the beauty of her voice. When presenting a paper on pleasure, she distinguished extrinsic pleasures – things we enjoy because of the description they fall under – and intrinsic pleasures – things we enjoy regardless of how they are described; and she cited, as an example of the latter, “shitting”, strongly pronouncing the double “t”, and with such sternness that her academic audience were too daunted to laugh. (Unfortunately this was probably one of the many papers she threw away as insufficiently good.)

Once, threatened by a mugger in Chicago, she told him that that was no way to treat a visitor. They soon fell into conversation and he accompanied her, admonishing her for being in such a dangerous neighbourhood. She chain-smoked for some years, but bargained with God, when her second son was seriously ill, that she would give up smoking cigarettes if he recovered. Feeling the strain of this the following year, she decided that her bargain had not mentioned cigars or pipes, and took to smoking these.

Except when pregnant, she wore trousers, often under a tunic, which, in the 50s and 60s, was often disapproved of. Once, entering a smart restaurant in Boston, she was told that ladies were not admitted in trousers. She simply took them off. When she threatened one of her children, “If you do that again, I’ll put you on the train to Bicester”, and he did, she felt obliged, given her views on fulfilling promises, actually to put him on the train. Bluff, courageous, determined, loyal, she argued that the word “I” does not refer to anything, but she certainly believed in the soul.

She is survived by her husband and their four daughters and three sons.https://c2b229b81d012e82bb22a0e0ee2315fe.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-39/html/container.html?n=0

• Gertrude Elizabeth Mary Anscombe, philosopher, born March 18 1919; died January 5 2001

… we have a small favour to ask. Tens of millions have placed their trust in the Guardian’s fearless journalism since we started publishing 200 years ago, turning to us in moments of crisis, uncertainty, solidarity and hope. More than 1.5 million supporters, from 180 countries, now power us financially – keeping us open to all, and fiercely independent.

Unlike many others, the Guardian has no shareholders and no billionaire owner. Just the determination and passion to deliver high-impact global reporting, always free from commercial or political influence. Reporting like this is vital for democracy, for fairness and to demand better from the powerful.

And we provide all this for free, for everyone to read. We do this because we believe in i


I welcome comments and criticism

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.